01 July 2012

Old Barrels and Concrete Cellars

Podrumi i Vjetër roughly means "Old Cellar."  While it's not that old - the cement and brick shed was erected in 1953 - it is historic.  Built during communism, bombed during the 1999 conflict, partially rebuilt, privatized and now being spruced up, Old Cellar is something of a symbol for Kosovar wine.  In a country where many don't drink and few people vacation, viticulture remains a low-key affair here in Rahovec, the center of what might be called a "wine region."
Rahovec (pronounced "Rah-o-wits") is in a dry valley without a real river.  The landscape is full of new grapes, beehives, cows and rusting cars.  We spent two days in town and lots of hours being shown around the vineyards.  Everywhere we went, we were met with surprise and warm welcomes.
Farms and vineyards sometimes seem thematically separate.  In Kosovo, where wine tourism is still in the nascent stages, the country's largest vineyards feel different - any similarity to Tuscany or Sonoma begins and ends with rows of grapes.  The slick operations found in other places are noticeably absent here.  In Rahovec, wine vats rise like silos and tractors putter along the main street.  This is a farming town, not a resort.
Leki Killaz is one of the head "technologues" at Podrumi i Vjetër.  When we met him he was returning from lunch with a bag of onions, still dirty from the field.  He changed from shorts and a t-shirt into his overalls and led us on an informal tour of the cellar.
What stood out to us immediately was how relaxed the visit was.  Leki showed us the new, stainless steel vats, the pumps, the mashers - the typical trappings of any big vineyard.  But he also brought us into little-used, old corners of the basement, where musty oak casks sat unused and bats flitted in the rafters.  We tasted a very good chardonnay (Rahovec's best variety) and talked about our favorite wines - Leki liked California whites, South African and Australian varieties, South America in general.  Italy, he thought, was going downhill fast.  It was an easy, fun conversation, with none of the normal talking points.
The cellars survived, mostly, when the building was bombed, but couldn't resist the ravages of disuse and age.  Old Cellar is beginning a big reclamation project, re-isolating the concrete storage tanks and making plans for a prettified tasting room.  Still, the vineyards "shop" is really just the warehouse.  When we arrived, accompanied by the Rahovec Tourism director, we needed to wait while the guard phoned the owner - he wanted to make sure it was okay that we were there for a tour.  We got the sense that Kosovo's vineyards aren't used to visitors.
Saranda Shala, the director and driving force of Rahovec Tourism, expressed a lot of frustration about how slowly things progressed here.  She had spent seven years living in Canada and understood better than most what wine tourism can do for a town - and for Kosovo in general.
"It's really hard," she told us, when we had to wait at Old Cellar.  "Things like this aren't supposed to happen.  I try to tell them that they should be happy about tourists, but it takes a long time." She's been trying to set up home stays in town, and runs tours of the region.  It was exciting for her to have us there - even with all her work, visitors are rare.  And, really, that's the problem.  It's not that Rahovec vintners weren't happy to show us around, it's just that they get caught by surprise when someone arrives.  They still can't quite believe that anyone would want to come see their farm.
At Stone Castle winery, the biggest of Rahovec's producers, two men sat outside in the shade. They had glasses of coffee and a plate of apricot pits before them.
Stone Castle is Kosovo's heavyweight; when you order a local wine in Pristina, chances are it will be from here.  Unlike Old Cellar, they have a shop and a young woman who can give tours.  Still, when we arrived unannounced, the gatekeeper and guide were a little flustered.  It took some frantic calls and hand-wringing to get us in.  It didn't seem promising until we told them we were from America.  "Oh!" the guard said.  "America! No problem!"  And we were off.
Zenel Durguti was charged with showing us the cellars.  A softspoken, wonderfully polite man, he told our guide that he wished he'd known we were coming so that he could have worn something nicer.  He had worked at the vineyard for thirty years and knew everything about the process, about winemaking and Stone Castle - he knew the story of the oak barrels (Croatian oak, crafted in Slovenia) and the history of the region.  When he expressed sadness that he'd only had a chance to finish secondary school, we told him that he could be a professor of wine.
On a terribly hot day, it was wonderful to spend some time in the cool of the cellar.  The one constant in wine cellars is the smell - mustiness, dampness, sweet-rot.  It's the same everywhere, and it immediately brings to mind age and years of waiting.
Here in Stone Castle's cellar, some wine glasses had been set out hopefully on paper napkins. Zenel drew us two pitchers of wine - white and red - from big barrels, choosing our tastes carefully.  We stood and drank and tried to communicate.  Once we'd had our fill, Zenel brought out a decanter of brandy - a piece of masking tape was stuck onto the crystal, with "1986" written in marker.  They called it Raki, but it bore no resemblance to the supermarket firewater we're used to.  This was delicious, smooth, honeyed and strong - one of the best brandy's we've ever tasted. And, yes, it was from 1986.  Zenel remembered putting it in the barrel.
"They shouldn't sell beer in the cafes," Blerim Shulina told us. "In Italy, in France, they only have wine at the cafes, no beer.  We should drink what we make."
We met Blerim one evening by chance, outside his shop.  Within a few minutes, he'd gotten us into his car and on our way to his cellar, which was much smaller and more basic than the others we'd toured.  Blerim is one of a few dozen small winemakers in the Rahovec area, and one of the better informed about what it takes to develop the industry.  Over a bottle of chardonnay on his patio, he told us about how hard it was to market and sell in Kosovo.
Because his operation is so small, he has a hard time getting awareness for his brand.  At the same time, it costs him more to produce each bottle, so it's difficult to compete with the larger companies.  Wine is a volume industry here.  Blerim sells his bottles for €3.60 each; Stone Castle prices theirs at €3.10.  In Kosovo, that's considered a big difference.
When we arrived at Sefa Wine Cellar, Blerim's business, we found his father at work applying labels to their new red wine.  A few years ago, a German organization gifted Rahovec a bottling machine so that the smaller vineyards could have an easier time meeting European standards.  The bottler was a huge boon for cellars like Sefa but, as Blerim explained, "it doesn't do labels."
Blerim, his father and a few cousins produce about 50,000 bottles a year, and have entered competitions and expositions in Pristina.  Still, this is a tiny operation and it's focused on craft, taste and the family legacy.
In the end, the people of Rahovec are farmers and they approach winemaking as someone should. Not as a showcase for the brand, but as a process of seasons and time, harvesting and aging.  We got the sense that everyone - from Blerim to Saranda, Leki to Zenel - really cared that we liked the wine.  Unlike at other tastings in other countries, these people watched us sip and think and were genuinely happy when we told them it was good.  We're far from experts, but it didn't matter.  We were all having a good time.

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